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Searching for Captain Wentworth - Chapter Eleven

Searching for Captain Wentworth 
A Timeslip Novel inspired by Persuasion
Chapter Eleven
Only once did it cross my mind that Josh would think I was some kind of obsessed stalker as I ran up the road after him. But, I convinced myself that all would be forgiven when I handed over the glove. Thinking about the ideas for my novel had made me resolve on doing the right thing. I wasn’t going back to interfere in the lives of people I didn’t really know any more. The past was better left alone and if I was intent on writing a book of fiction, I must use my imagination, not rely on any event that might have happened in real life. To do so would be cheating, somehow, and I knew if I did go back in time once again that the experience would completely colour my writing. That wasn’t to say that having a glimpse into the past hadn’t been useful. My mind was full of the images, sounds and smells that I could bring forth just by touching the glove. I was careful not to handle it too much again. It was safe in my pocket. Quite how I was going to explain to Josh what I was doing with it was another matter, but I was determined to hand it back to its rightful owner.
The light from the street lamps lent their dim beams to shimmer in rosy blushes as if dashed by an artist’s hand in ripples on the dark pavements, wet with rain. I saw Josh turn left at Pulteney Bridge, but by the time I reached the same spot, I’d lost him. Drawing my coat closer about me, I forged ahead buffeted by strong cold blasts roaring up from the river as it foamed over the weir to churn and froth. There were a few people crossing making their way towards town. I thought I caught a glimpse of him at the end of Grand Parade, but even though I started to break into a jog again I could hardly keep him in my sight. On reaching the Abbey, I saw the silhouette of his dark head framed in the light from a streetlamp. Towering above everyone else, his mane of curls distinguished him as he moved quickly along Cheap Street. Then he disappeared, but as I reached the archway opposite Union Passage, I realized he must have taken a turn. There were lights glowing from the Pump Rooms, so I turned left and crossed the pump-yard. Josh’s unmistakable figure could be seen in the glass of the revolving door.
There must be some sort of function on, I thought, and hesitated before I stepped onto the quadrant putting my hand out to stop the door from moving like a carousel. I looked through the glass, but I couldn’t see Josh. The dark, heavy doors needed all my weight to move them, but once I’d got them started they swiftly seemed beyond my control to stop. Very quickly, the doors picked up a frightening speed and started to spin so rapidly it was impossible to make any attempt to get out. Faster and faster they turned, moving with a force all of their own. No matter how much I shifted my weight to lean against the one behind, nothing would slow the increasing acceleration of the revolving doors. I clung onto a brass rail with fear, shutting my eyes tight because I felt so giddy and nauseous. It was only when the sensation completely stopped that I dared to open them. Even then it was a few moments before I could take everything in.
I might have known that I’d passed back through another portal, a doorway through the present into the past. This time, though not exactly comfortable and feeling completely disorientated, I knew as I examined my dress, my hands and my feet, that I had returned to be Sophia Elliot once again. It was daytime and morning, I guessed. The sun was streaming in bright yellow shafts through the long, glazed windows, illuminating the ladies’ ethereal muslin gowns to angelic brightness, casting shadows over the wooden floors and glittering dust motes to sparkle through the air. Mr Elliot, Miss Elliot and Mrs Randall were less than two feet away. It almost broke my heart to realize the resemblance of that lady to my dear mum, but though the likeness was extraordinary, there were enough differences to see that she was someone else entirely with a whole different set of mannerisms. She even moved in a different way and I supposed that was partly why I’d not noticed the similarity before. Thankfully, they were far too busy talking to be much bothered with me, so I could wander at leisure and have a really good look at everything.
Although I felt I was in familiar surroundings, the Pump Room was far less fussy than the tearoom that I knew. The chandelier still shimmered, but the room was pared back in appearance. The long windows were naked of fabric, unlike the swarm of bodies who paraded about the room in fashionable dress unhindered by tables and rout chairs, which were ranged along the walls for those who wished to observe. The clamour of voices all talking and gossiping on the subject of one another seemed much the same, punctuated with an occasional silvery laugh rising into the high ceilings. It was quite a sight.
I’d hardly registered where I was when the figure of a tall man stepped up, smiling as if he recognized me. I smiled back. There was something familiar about him though I had no idea who he could be. What struck me most about him, despite the fact that he was very good-looking, was his tanned face. It seemed so incongruous amongst a sea of pale faces. He bowed.
‘Miss Elliot, I see you have found my glove. I cannot thank you enough, wherever did you find it?’
I remembered to bob a curtsey, which also gave me a moment to realize that the white glove, that had been in the pocket of my jeans not five minutes ago, was now in my hand. He immediately held out his hand to take it. What could I do? I had no choice but to hand it over. The thought struck me then that I might very quickly be sucked back through time, as the glove was no longer in my possession, but to my astonishment nothing happened.
Our eyes met. I relaxed. He had such an easy manner and a friendliness that made me feel almost as if I knew him.
‘Ah, my sisters approach,’ he said. ‘They have been attending to my mother and father.’
Of course, this had to be Charles Austen. He wasn’t in uniform and I realized then that he probably didn’t wear it when he was off duty. He’d come to Bath for a holiday, to be with the family he had not seen for a while.
The Austen family stopped to shake hands. Mr and Mrs Austen smiled very cheerfully. His white hair was almost silver and his kind, hazel eyes, reminded me so much of his daughter Jane’s.
Mrs Austen’s piercing eyes scrutinized my face as she looked shrewdly from her son to me and back again.
‘Will you be attending the ball at the Rooms on Monday evening, Miss Elliot?’ she asked, as if she could guess what we’d been talking about. ‘I daresay you will. Young people love to dance, do they not? Of course, I cut quite a figure in my youth, you know, but nowadays my legs prefer to sit it out. I’m not as strong as I was once, you see. My poor heart flutters in the most alarming way at any exertion that it doesn’t like. “Be still my beating heart”, is apt to come to mind, though indeed, it’s rapid throb stems not from any longing of the heart, but mere incapacity.’
Not only did I privately think she looked as strong as an ox, but I was also aware that during this speech, Jane, who was standing slightly behind her mother, was raising her eyes heavenward in a gesture that was so naturally comic it was all I could do to keep a straight face. Thankfully, Jane’s mother seemed totally unaware and had other distractions.
‘Come, Mr Austen,’ she said, ‘I see Doctor Bowen and I simply must know what he thinks of this rattle of a cough that’s plaguing me.’
She took his arm and moved off at speed, leaving Jane, Cassandra and Charles all looking at me with their sharp eyes seeming to penetrate my every thought.
‘I do hope you will be attending the ball, Miss Elliot,’ said Charles.
I felt very conscious that I had no idea of the answer to this question. No voice came, no involuntary thought. The feeling that I was merely inhabiting another body had entirely gone. The only way I can describe it is that I just felt like me. And when it became clear that Sophia was not going to be talking on my behalf, I realized that I couldn’t stand there any longer without saying something.
‘I hope so too, Lieutenant Austen, but I do not know of any firm plan to attend the ball.’
‘But you must come,’ Jane said. ‘Come with us if your family are not attending. I’m sure Charles would like it above everything else.’
Charles blushed slightly at her remarks, immediately bowing before excusing himself, saying he had just caught sight of a fellow sailor he’d promised to see.
Cassandra was quick to scold her sister. ‘Jane, you are a terrible tease. Poor Charles has not been home for five minutes and he is the butt of your merciless jokes.’
‘I was not teasing,’ contradicted Jane, ‘I should think my brother would enjoy Miss Elliot’s company at the ball very much. And, you see, I am always right about these things. His feigning embarrassment is just a trick so he does not have to talk to us. Besides, he would not have asked as much or taken himself off so quickly, looking half so discomfited, if there were not a grain of truth in what I said.’
It was my turn to feel somewhat uncomfortable. I felt I was witnessing the sharper side of Miss Jane Austen’s tongue.
‘Forgive me, Miss Elliot,’ said Cassandra, putting her hand on my arm in a confidential manner and talking quietly in my ear, ‘but my sister has a habit of matchmaking, or at least, she is always attempting to make matches, as I know to my cost. It will be her undoing, and she will create more mischief than happiness by such interference. Please do excuse her boldness.’
Jane’s retort came at once. ‘I do not attempt to make matches where it is clear there are none to be found. But I have an eye for those where there are true feelings of the heart. I pride myself on my ability to spot such matters. Besides, Cassy, you must admit yourself that Charles lights up like a torch whenever Miss Elliot is near.’
Cassandra smiled. ‘You must forgive our rude way of running on so, Miss Elliot. We are not used to very refined company having been closeted away most of the time in the country with no one but ourselves for society. You must not be frightened by Jane’s outrageous behaviour. She does not mean it, truly.’
‘I will speak for myself, if I may, Cassandra,’ said Jane, taking my arm and her sister’s in an affectionate way. ‘If I were a betting person, I would stake my reputation on the fact that despite having met her but two days ago, my dearest brother Charles will not only dance with Miss Elliot at the ball on at least two occasions, but that he will seek her out again and again. What do you think of that, Miss Elliot?’
I hardly knew what to say and for once my tongue, which has a habit of running away with me, was still. I was surprised. Jane was so outspoken. She wasn’t the timid, quiet spinster I’d expected, not at all how I thought she’d be, but then, if I thought about how little I really knew about her, perhaps that was not surprising. What did jump into my head was another book of hers that I’d enjoyed reading. Emma, whom Jane herself had written was a heroine whom “no one but myself will much like”, was a young woman who made it her business to interfere in the love lives of the characters of Highbury village. But surely, sweet Jane, the clergyman’s spinster daughter, could not share any of the characteristics of Miss (matchmaking) Emma Woodhouse.
I spoke truthfully. ‘I do not know how to reply, Miss Jane.’
‘But, do you like my brother?’
What could I say? ‘I do.’
‘Then there is nothing further to be said on the subject. Come, let us take a turn and be admired. And when we have had enough of this insupportable crowd, where we will not find one genteel face among them, we shall take ourselves off to the Crescent to breathe the air of better company.’
We laughed. It was impossible to be cross with her, she was so funny. Before we’d walked very far, however, Mr Elliot and Mrs Randall appeared. Mr Elliot didn’t acknowledge the Miss Austens and I felt mortified for them. Jane let go of my arm. I think she knew I felt embarrassed, but I only saw her move away with her sister, as if this was a situation she had encountered many times before. Happily, it was only a moment later that I saw her turn with a wave goodbye and a mischievous grin, an expression that told me in no uncertain terms that she was not upset in the least.
Mr Elliot made no reference to the Miss Austens whatsoever. It was as if they were invisible. I could only hope they didn’t feel too offended and looked forward to seeing them at the ball, if I didn’t get a chance to see them sooner.
Jane Odiwe
 Further links: Chapters One,Two,Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve

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